Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic by Mike Jay

Hallucinogenic drugs such as mescaline show that perception and consciousness are more than private cerebral activities. They are irreducibly embodied and social’ (Jay 2019: 160)

Mescaline shares a curious effect with other ‘classic psychedelics’ that might fruitfully be described as territorializing. They have an innate ability to reform themselves around the peculiarities of new contexts—as plant or powder, as cure or poison—whilst simultaneously transforming that context through their elusive but potent effects. Charting their physical distribution and possession, their effects on those who do and do not take them, unpick historical patterns. Narrative agents par excellence, their stories manifest the nuances of socio-cultural, religious, and medical evolutions. And remarkably, underlying these shifting territories, is the spatial and temporal ubiquity of altered states of consciousness.

These states are globally experienced but manifest as culturally specific. An indigenous peoples will likely have never experienced Keynesian economics, and if it is forced upon them by an outside agent, they will no doubt struggle to conceptualise it, let alone practice it, without the right ideological precepts and tools. All cultures, however, have undoubtedly experienced altered states of consciousness—via plant or fungi, via fever or practice. Implicitly, therefore, distributed psychedelics are also shared territorializing agents existing on the boundaries that demarcate cultures; by charting them, one charts cultural experience. And mescaline and its cacti parents, such as Peyote and San Pedro, are a particularly illustrative case.

In Mike Jay’s Mescaline: A global history of the first psychedelic (2019) we have a formidable guide to these territorializing effects—in the conceptualising minds of users and through the geographies and disciplines mescaline travelled. It is a fascinating and culturally rich dialogue between indigenous, scientific, occult and artistic territories.  Jay neatly unpicks the journey of Peyote and San Pedro out of the mists of prehistory and into various fields of modernity; a process of refining aspects. As he notes, ‘non-Western’ subjects prefer not to share or reduce the experience to its visionary aspects, but ‘western encounters with mescaline are quite different. When its subjects describe its effects, they are also seeking to discover, construct or invent a framework of meaning to explain them’ (Jay 2019: 10). In many respects, this is a history of these encounters—encounters that territorialize.

There is some archaeological evidence of the pre-Colombian use of psychoactive substances, particularly at the Chavin site and the Early Horizon culture in Peru. The written record, however, begins with the earliest Spanish chroniclers describing indigenous use of plants and fungi, which they did in inquisitional and superstitious terms—the devil, paganism, and witchcraft. This colonial othering resulted in a particular matrix wherein, ‘The evil of their beliefs was projected onto the practices and the plants intrinsic to them’ (Jay 2019: 37).  As Jay observes, through this interaction a line can easily be drawn from these early contacts through to the ‘war on drugs’, both being grounded in religious and racial taboo. A conceptual transaction also occurred though. The Spanish, ‘observed psychedelics through the lens of alcohol, while the Indians treated alcohol like a psychedelic’ (Jay 2019: 39). The former believed in little and often, while the latter were all-night affairs. Intoxication was divided spatially and temporally, and brings to mind our contemporary division between the heroic dose and the microdose.

Against the backdrop of tensions and bloodshed, and the attempted re-establishing of indigenous identity through the Ghost Dance, there emerged a Plains peyote ceremony at the end of the nineteenth century. The peyote ceremony was no single person’s invention, ‘it was at once a creation of all and none,’ and was territorialized out of the necessity of Reservation living, with bans on open dancing and singing, and the introduction of more traditional ceremonial elements such as sage smudging and the water drum (Jay 2019: 71). Between one of its earliest proponents Quanah Parker (son of a Comanche chief and white mother) and the ethnographer James Mooney, a way of presenting the peyote religion to wider audiences emerged; peyote ‘as a medicine and a sacrament rather than an intoxicant, and a companion rather than a rival to the Christian faith in which privately neither of them believed’ (Jay 2019: 74). In this manner, an invented tradition—with elements of the past and a recognition of the present—was a strategy for legitimization.

Mike Jay

For Native Americans, Jay notes, ‘peyote was not an adventure into terra incognita but a journey to the deepest source of their culture and its power’ (Jay 2019: 84). As the peyote religion spread amongst tribes in the early twentieth century it came up against prohibitionists and progressives who saw it as a result of Western influence. As legal battles ensued locally and nationally, more firm action was taken and the Native American Church (NAC) was established, which ‘yoked together their indigenous heritage and their presumptive constitutional rights’ (Jay 2019: 127). It wouldn’t be till 1994 that their religious freedom was certified specifically in law. Just as the use of peyote was crossing the cosmological territories between Native American beliefs and colonial Christianity, it also passed into the world of science. Experiences of some Western subjects were different from indigenous ones; less a source of power, more a dissolution of stable identity boundaries.

‘Territory’ is, of course, an ever-present metaphor in mind science, which has lent us our most readily available language for psychedelic experiences in the western world. When it emerged at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was treated with a colonial gusto. Researchers attempted to stake out, territorialize, effectual and sub-perceptual spaces. Whether Frederic Myers’ ‘subliminal mind’ or Freud’s ‘unconscious’, these new psycho-territories were dynamic plains that informed one another in myriad ways; as ideas, impulses, and drives that retreated and manifested across liminal and hardly discernible borders. Mescaline itself was one such tool used to explore these boundaries of sanity and perception. Peyote buttons given to Mooney by Quanah were passed onto researchers in Washington, and 1895 saw the first scientific trial take place—the wrenching of peyote from its community context and into a clinical one.

science has attempted to instrumentalise mescaline in ways as diverse as western culture itself: as a medicine, a brainwashing tool, a creative stimulus, a spiritual catalyst, an instrument of science and of pleasure […] In the indigenous world, by contrast, the cactus is granted personhood, all its properties accepted as facets of a complex and irreducible character. Rather than attempting to bend it to a preconceived purpose, its traditional users have always taken it on its own terms and shaped their world around it (Jay 2019: 255)

The early scientific researchers and experimenters included such notables as the neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell and psychologist William James, with the range of recorded experiences apparently mirroring peyote’s deterritorialization in its ‘model psychosis’.  Simultaneously, however, peyote and mescaline began integrating into new spaces. In his extraordinary article ‘Mescal: A New Artificial Paradise’ Havelock Ellis placed himself in a line of writers including Thomas de Quincey and Charles Baudelaire—invigorating a pharmacographical tradition. Indeed, his deeply aesthetic descriptions were ‘the flowering of a tendency that established itself almost immediately in western encounters with peyote: to describe its effects primarily in terms of the visual sense’ (Jay 2019: 94). Ellis was entwined with the fin de siècle art scene, and there was of course an occult revival going on; a magico-poetic scene in which the likes of WB Yeats and Arthur Symons experimented. Not to mention, of course, the Great Beast was likely the first westerner to experiment with peyote methodically over a period of years, ritualizing its use anew, and describing it in the now lost document The Cactus, Liber CMXXXIV.

Mescaline’s leap into the final stage of refinement was in 1919. It began life as a ‘pure white drug’ severed completely from the cultural and botanical complexities of peyote when it was first synthesized by Ernst Späth. As a result, it was rapidly taken up by the quickly evolving discipline of psychology in Germany. During the interwar period, a shift occurred from framing mescaline as a model psychosis and spiritual practice, to its interactions with the creative process. ‘The negotiation between expectation, illusion and reality was a process with which artists were already intimately familiar and mescaline offered a new route for science to explore it in conjunction with them’ (Jay 2019: 150-151). Writer and artist Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, surrealist Antonin Artaud, and philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Walter Benjamin, were among those to subsequently wrestle with the mescaline experience. Drs Eric Guttman and Walter Maclay researched its effects on schizophrenic patients and artists at the Maudsley Hospital – including Basil Beaumont whose artwork adorns this cover, and whose account is transcribed within. In many respects, this was cultural psychedelia’s prehistory.

During the 1940s and 1950s, psychiatry began focusing on a biochemical basis for mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. The discovery of LSD and ‘antipsychotics,’ such as chlorpromazine, established a new lexicon and model, with mescaline and LSD as ‘psychotomimetics’. Out of this new medical milieu, psychiatrists Humphry Osmond and John Smythies and their colleague Abram Hoffer, began researching mescaline. Osmond and Hoffer sat in on NAC peyote ceremony, and they were ‘struck by the great success of the NAC in combatting alcoholism, and they became excited by the idea of trialling mescaline or LSD in its clinical treatment’ (Jay 2019: 208). While for Osmond’s most famous subject, Aldous Huxley, mescaline propelled the user through the mind science territories, from personal and egoic localities, through distant archetypal lands, and off into the visionary antipodes at the edges of experience. Interestingly, the subsequent story of mescaline becomes one diffused into a pharmacopeia of substances and experiences, just as Huxley’s self was posited in myriad forms of western constructs.

‘In the drug culture of the twenty-first century,’ Jay writes, ‘mescaline has two faces: the sacred and the profane, The first is identified with peyote and the magical tales of Carlos Castaneda, the second with a legendary white crystal and the twisted exploits of Hunter S. Thompson’ (Jay 2019: 243). It’s not a substance one often comes across in this day and age—one has to go looking very specifically for it. Yet, thanks to the work of Alexander Shulgin, who had his own extraordinary experience with it, a cacophony of chemically-related substances have enthused modern drug culture. The identifiable trajectories of peyote and mescaline, territorializing geographies and disciplines, has given way to a postmodern poly-drug culture with a quickly-evolving lexicon and hyperspatial existence. Jay’s Mescaline is a history that also infers a long complex future ahead of it.

As it stands, however, Mescaline manages to balance the challenges of a global outlook with the intricacies of personal experience, along with the difficult dynamics of intercultural imposition. From the Tarahumara and Huichol Tribes, to New York socialites and German chemists, this is a story of distribution. While one has the impression that there is much more detail in this journey, it would be delving too deeply, and take away from the territorializing narrative of the book. Jay, as with his many other works, expertly places the important details in these larger trends, and the result is a wonderfully engaging narrative; informative and entertaining. It will no doubt prove to be an important go-to text for researchers, academics, and trippers alike.

This review first appeared in the Psychedelic Press Journal XXVII: A special issue dedicated to mescaline.

Book: Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic (2019)

Author: Mike Jay –

Publisher: Yale University Press

ISBN: 9780300231076


Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a historian, writer and editor. He is the founder of the Psychedelic Press, co-director of the Psychedelic Museum, and is currently undertaking his PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests focus on the history and literature of psychedelic substances, and the role of writing in spiritual and magical traditions during the 19th century. He is also the author of the novel 'Erin', and has occasionally be known to perform a poem or two.

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